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National Emma M. Nutt Day: an important day in communication history

By Husain Sumra|Wednesday September 1, 2021

Did you know that September 1 is Emma M. Nutt Day? Emma M. Nutt Day celebrates the fact that Nutt was the first female telephone operator. Emma Nutt’s contribution to the telephone industry has been recognized by the National Museum of American History, which organized a one-day special event honoring her in 1984. It was called “All Alone by the Telephone.”

Who was Emma Nutt?

Emma Nutt was hired by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, as an operator in Boston and began work on September 1, 1878. Prior to working in the telephone industry, Nutt worked in a telegraph office. She wasn’t alone in her telephone work for long; her sister Stella was hired as a telephone operator shortly afterward. By the end of the 1880s, it is estimated that nearly all telephone operators were women. Some companies preferred to hire women because it was thought they were better with customers than the teenage boys first hired to do the job. Nutt was successful in her position as a telephone operator and worked in the industry for more than 30 years.

Nutt’s position expected 54 hours of work per week, while today, the average American working in the private sector works approximately 35 hours per week. She earned a monthly salary of $10. Nutt’s income was slightly higher than some women in her era—female servants in America earned $9.04 per month in 1870, including board. In 2018 terms, a monthly salary of $10 is equivalent to at least $2,109.

The rise of telephone operators.

In time, female telephone operators became influential. They received additional training to help them better understand accents and foreign dialects. They led strikes for better pay and worked as telephone operators in the First World War in the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit. By 1930, there were approximately 235,000 female telephone operators in the United States. However, there were still barriers to entry. According to the New England Historical Society, a woman seeking a job as a telephone operator had to be between the ages of 17 and 26 and be tall enough to use the telephone switchboard. At that time, Jewish and African American women could not get jobs in the industry. In addition, female telephone operators could lose their jobs if they married.

In the beginning days of the telephone, you would make a phone call to a telephone exchange, talk to the operator, and ask them to connect you to a specific person. To complete the call, the telephone operator would connect cables. Long-distance calls required several connections.

What happened to telephone operators?

Over time, the number of telephone operator jobs has declined in the U.S. due to technology and automation. The decline began in the 1930s when it became possible to directly dial phone numbers. By 1940, there were fewer than 200,000 phone operators in the U.S.

In 1984, there were approximately 40,000 telephone operators at AT&T. By 1996, AT&T had only 8,000 telephone operators across the U.S. As of May 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are fewer than 5,000 telephone operators in the U.S. Today, telephone operators help children and people with disabilities make calls and provide other kinds of customer assistance. The total number of phone operator jobs are expected to fall throughout the 2020s.

Ways to celebrate Emma Nutt Day.

There are different ways to celebrate Emma Nutt Day, depending on your interests. Take a look at the following ideas.

    Change how you make phone calls for a day. Female telephone operators became successful partially because it was thought they were more reliable and polite than teenage boys. Therefore, you might honor Emma Nutt day by taking extra time to listen and be courteous on your next few phone calls.

    Celebrate women in the communications industry. Emma Nutt is not the only woman who has made a significant contribution to communications. For instance, the Women in Cable Telecommunications organization has a Walk of Fame event that honors women like Jennifer Andreoli-Fang, a noted technologist who earned a Ph.D. and more than 80 patents, and Dana Filip Crandall, who held several executive positions in the industry.

    Enjoy music about phone calls. There are numerous songs referencing phone calls over the decades:

    • Elvis Presley and several other musicians recorded versions of “Memphis, Tennessee” about the challenge of making a phone call.
    • Steely Dan released “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” in 1974.
    • The 1981 Tommy Tutone hit, “867-5309 (Jenny),” caused some people who had the same phone number to change their numbers because they kept getting phone calls.
    • Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (1984)
    • Since 2000, there have been several phone themed songs like Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” (2008), Maroon 5’s “Payphone” (2012), Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” (2012), Adele’s “Hello” (released in 2015), and Lady Gaga recorded “Telephone” (2010) with Beyonce.

    Join an association. There are several organizations that support women in the telecommunications industry, like Women In Cable and Telecommunications and Women in Telecoms and Technology. Joining an organization is one way to meet others interested in building a career in telecommunications in honor of Emma Nutt.

    Ask the women in your family members about their careers. Ask yourself how much you know about the work and careers of women in your life. To honor Emma Nutt Day, consider calling your mother, sister, aunt or other family member and asking about their careers.

    Share your thoughts on Emma Nutt Day on social media. Your friends might not have heard of Emma Nutt’s accomplishments. To spread the word, consider posting about Emma Nutt on September 1 using the hashtag #emmanuttday. Some people may not know who Emma Nutt was, so consider writing a short historical summary in your post.

    Learn about other significant women in science and technology. For example, British mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) saw the potential for computers beyond math. There is also Marie Curie (1867-1934), who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. That tradition continues today with many impressive women like Jane Goodall (a noted primate scientist who won numerous awards), Tiera Guinn (a rocket scientist who works with NASA), and Mae C. Jemison (the first African-American female astronaut).

Discover the latest phone technology.

Telephone technology has come a long way since the time of Alexander Graham Bell. Today, you can make low-cost international calls through the internet, integrate your home phone with Amazon Echo and much more with Ooma.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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